Is It Time for a Radical Rethinking of Open Space in Seattle?


Seattle’s urban villages suffer not only from inadequate space to build multifamily housing, but there is also a massive open space inequity versus-single family zoning. In large part, this is intentional. The neighborhood planning process was largely co-opted by homeowners who gerrymandered themselves out of urban villages. Some 96% of today’s population (and 94% of late 1990s Seattle’s population) had zero say in how our urban villages should grow, where new housing should be located, and how expensive it would have to be.

Left: Historic City of Seattle proposed urban village map. Right: Neighborhood planning gerrymandered map.
Left: Historic City of Seattle proposed urban village map. Right: Neighborhood planning gerrymandered map. The MHA rezone map didn’t expand Greenwood’s urban village boundaries.

As Sightline Institute recently wrote, 70% of land around parks greater than an acre was zoned to exclude multifamily housing. Many urban villages saw our city’s parks moved outside of urban village boundaries – Greenwood alone saw three parks and 32 blocks of multifamily-zoned land removed through its ‘neighborhood planning’. There is a massive open space inequity that will only be resolved one way. That method will not largely be through the acquisition of developable land. Land in Seattle is (and will continue to be) too expensive to purchase for absurdly minimal gains in open space. Additionally, we shouldn’t be reducing the availability of land for housing when we have a significant housing shortage.

The way forward will require closing down portions of urban village streets, and turning them into open space and parks. Yes, these will mostly be on and around arterials. This will be a win-win for the long-term health of the city.

Green Lake is largely surrounded by single-family zoning (light gray).
Green Lake is largely surrounded by single-family zoning (light gray).

It will result in increased open space. It will result in increased space for trees. It will result in increased livability. It will re-democratize our urban space.

It will be glorious.

Weißenburger Strasse, Munich.
Weißenburger Strasse, Munich.

As these spaces will largely be permeable to bikes and feet (and in some instances, transit) – they’ll also be much faster than driving. Bollard usage will see a dramatic uptick. I’m a massive fan of bollards.

Because this reconfiguration will seriously curtail private cars speeding through urban village commercial districts, streets paralleling these arterials will also need to see significant alteration to eliminate cut-throughs and ensure dramatically reduced speeding by cars. I’m a big fan of Tempo 20 (kmh, 13 mph max) for these kinds of shared spaces. This will effectively turn these streets into spielstrassen/play streets. Add some corner cafes, some restaurants… <chef’s kiss>

The Eliason minivan.
The Eliason minivan.

And yes, by all means, this will require radically more biking infrastructure. Cargo bikes will be much more efficient at moving people and goods short distances. Copenhagen has 40,000 of them. Seattle has… maybe 400. With proper outreach, education, planning, and most importantly – infrastructure –we can get there, too.

Yes, we absolutely will need to remove anti-housing restrictions and once again, allow multifamily housing around existing parks, too. But the open space deficit in our urban villages is so great, we will need to radically, and rapidly, rethink how we approach creating a more sustainable, more livable, and more equitable city.

This is a cross-post from Mike’s personal blog on Medium.

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Mike is a dad, writer, and mass timber architect with a passion for passivhaus buildings, baugruppen, social housing, livable cities, and safe car-free streets. After living in Freiburg, Mike spent 15 years raising his family - nearly car-free, in Fremont. After a brief sojourn to study mass timber buildings in Bayern, he has returned to jumpstart a baugruppe movement and help build a more sustainable, equitable, and livable Seattle. Ohne autos.

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Bob johnson

If you tear down expensive homes near parks and build apartments, you will have expensive apartments. Which I suspect will do the activists no good.
And then you tell the owners of desirable properties that you want apartments with no parking, a percentage for low income, block off streets and lower the speed limits. Are you really surprised by the push backs?
I will let you in on a secret. The city limits were once 85th St.
The lots north of 85th are generally larger and many of the houses poorly built. Why don’t you try there or Lake City?

Mike Carr

Not sure who in Seattle is anti-housing, most people want to preserve housing and build additional housing. The need to preserve all existing parks and open spaces is more urgent as the population expands. All the planned density expansion puts more pressure on open spaces. Density and open spaces can conflict with each other.

Preston Sahabu

“Density and open spaces can conflict with each other.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not how math works.


Pretty sure its the other way round, given how quickly low density development has gobbled up open space in the region.


There are a few who want Seattle to go back to a smaller town, with fewer people.
Most of the anti-housing people seem to be ‘anti new housing near me’.
I’m not sure where you want to build additional housing – we need to build it where there is already housing, and to build more of it, more densly.

If we continue with this inequitable distribution of land, the only recourse will be to build housing on open spaces, density is required to save them.

Or do you really mean ‘I don’t want ‘those people’ (poor people usually) cluttering up my park’? That’s the impression (and sometimes explicit sentiment) I get from a lot of anti-density people.


If you talked to a slightly broader range of people in the neighborhoods, I think you’d find that many, perhaps most of them support additional housing in areas where it can be serviced most efficiently — walking distance to neighborhood retail and good public transit. We call them Urban Villages, and if they truly aren’t big enough or dense enough to accommodate expected growth, then upzone them and/or expand them — which I believe the HALA program is in fact doing. What doesn’t work so well is apartment blocks on streets with no sidewalks, or neighborhoods where there’s nothing much to walk to — so everyone drives their car.

Bob johnson

My complaint is that there is no actual planning.
Using Ballard for example. There were competing contractors building anywhere they could buy. The city issued three times as many permits as the original plan. There were no infrastructure improvements, no green space areas. Just condos.
And there are people acting as if there was no housing built in South Lake Union, Belltown, Ballard, West Seattle, Greenwood.